Bake Your Own: How a DIY Oven Brings a Community Together

Westchester is a neighborhood of neat houses and well-tended lawns—the kind of place where residents can still go next door to borrow a cup of sugar. The Holy Nativity Episcopal Church sits in the center of this residential area, a low-slung building with a riot of feathery flowers outside. The church functions as a community center with a yoga studio, garden, and spaces for environmental activism and Zen meditation. It’s also a place where you can fire your loaves.

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Westchester Bakers, a group of passionate and self-declared "bread-heads", came together two years ago to build their very own oven in the church’s backyard. First up in the build was acquiring local clay for cob, a hand-molded material made from sand, clay, and water versus adobe which is poured into bricks. Eric Knutzen, one of the founders of LA Bakers, steered the group towards a basement excavation at The Museum of Jurassic Technology. For the next two weeks, they transported clay, mixed and glommed it onto a form in the backyard of the church. The finished oven looks like a dropped napkin, its curvaceous folds standing up on its own.

Silver-haired Paul Morgan is one of the group’s chief fire whisperers. “The oven’sstill growing and cracking,” he says. He heats it up seven hours before a bake—temperatures inside reaching 800 degrees. The oven is called a black oven, which means the fire burns in the same place as the bread. Black ovens like this have been used since Neolithic times, five inches of mud gathering heat from the flames. When the embers are raked out, the temperature goes down gradually. First up are pizzas, then bread.

“You can put a pig in there,” Paul tells me. “It’ll cook all night and then in the morning the oven will be 300 degrees.” Potatoes roast in four minutes flat. Bread cooks in twelve. The group is equally passionate about sourcing heritage and ancient grains. Some have their own home mills, while others meet at The King’s Roost in Silverlake to get their flours ground. They’re also eager to develop relationships with farmers like Mai Nguyen, one of the founders of the California Grain Campaign. She works the land in Santa Rosa, as well as Petaluma and Sebastopol. with heritage drought tolerant grains.

“We think about bread all the time,” says Dana Morgan. In addition to selling bread at farmers' markets, Dana teaches a seed-to-loaf class to fourth graders at Playa Vista and other elementary schools. This past year, she and the kids planted nine square feet of Yecora Rojo, tended and harvested it before they baked into one loaf of bread.

The Reverend Peter Rood tells me he feels like the "chief midwife of creative things" at his church. He is also plainly thrilled, telling me that “it looks like a maverick group of bread-heads here, but one of the things we have in common is that we are drawn to simple things. What could be simpler than bread?”

What: Westchester Community Oven Pizza and Bread Bakes
When: 12:00pm for pizza; 2:00pm for bread on the second Saturday of every month.
Where: The Garden of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, 6700 West 83rd St, Los Angeles

Bring your own dough and toppings. 

LifeLisa AlexanderComment